US National Security at Stake in Rocket Engine Debate

No matter which party wins the White House in November our next Commander in Chief will inherit a world far more unstable than at any point in recent history.  From the rapid expansion of ISIS, to recent nuclear tests in North Korea, to the many problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, the very real threats to America and its allies have never been more evident.  Roughly 150,000 U.S. troops are stationed in more than 150 countries around the world and they are the tip of the spear in keeping our country safe and secure.

That is why it’s deeply troubling that some in Congress are taking active steps that would harm the ability of our men and women in uniform to complete their missions and potentially deprive our country’s ability to monitor threats abroad.  Over the next five years, our military and intelligence communities expect to launch at least 34 national security and intelligence gathering satellites into space.  These highly sensitive, billion dollar payloads, will help replace aging satellite technology and modernize our systems in critical areas such as classified intelligence gathering, nuclear monitoring, intercepting terrorist communications, military communications and global navigation.

In at least a dozen hearings over the last year, the Secretary of Defense, Director of National Intelligence, Secretary of the Air Force, Commander of U.S. Space Command, Air Force Chief of Staff and many others have all testified before Congress in support of allowing the acquisition of 18 RD-180 rocket engines from Russia until a new domestic engine – for which research, development & testing are already in progress – is certified for national security space launches.  They have also made clear that failure to do so will put America’s access to space, and our national security, at risk.

Top military and DoD officials have also testified that it would also cost taxpayers more than $2 billion in additional spending to launch many of these payloads on the only other rocket system available. If not wasted in this way, that $2 billion would be enough to replace every Humvee in the Marine Corps, pay raises of 2.1% for our troops over the next 5 years and doubling funding for National Guard equipment.

The RD-180 engine powers the Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance which is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  This rocket has a 100 percent success record with more than 80 consecutive successful launches, including two-thirds of all national security satellites.  The Atlas V, and its more expensive Delta IV counterpart, constitute our nation’s only family of launch vehicles capable of delivering all national security missions to orbit.

Everyone agrees of course that our country needs to end its reliance on Russian engines.  ULA is already in the process of phasing out the Atlas program and replacing it with Vulcan, a rocket with a new, American-made, state-of-the-art engine.   However, it will take an estimated 5 to 8 years for everything to be developed, tested and implemented.  There is no question that ULA will run out of RD-180 engines long before that new rocket is ready.

Some in Congress are ignoring these realities and instead proposing that Elon Musk’s SpaceX program can take over the Atlas launches.  But SpaceX exploded a $100 million NASA payload to resupply the Space Station last June.  Our Space Station astronauts were fortunate that a ULA rocket was available a few months later to help complete that mission and bring them their urgently needed supplies. Billion dollar military and intelligence assets need the flawless, 100% reliability the government has received and come to expect from ULA.

Beyond SpaceX’s troubling and expensive June misstep is another unavoidable issue: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is only capable of reaching an orbit that meets roughly 60 percent of the military’s missions.  It does not have the ability to accomplish the most technically-difficult launches.  Though SpaceX does have a larger, heavier rocket in the works, it is unclear when it will be ready to be reviewed for certification by the Air Force.

America recently scored a significant win in the war of terror, eliminating the head of the Taliban. Like nearly all of our successes, signals intelligence including communications intercepts provided by our network of satellites likely played a key, if not the critical role in helping us pinpoint this target and others— including Osama bin Laden. The nation cannot afford to simply put all of that critical intelligence gathering “on hold” for several years.

So why would we essentially jettison a successful program that has been vital to our national security, while threatening America’s access to space and harming our military’s ability to meet its mission all to benefit one company and CEO?  Congress should be in the business of encouraging competition and not destroying it.

Fortunately, responsible heads have already prevailed in the U.S. House where a strong bipartisan majority recently endorsed our military’s request for 18 RD-180 engines.  This question now comes before the Senate and as the the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act is considered we sincerely hope they will do so as well.  This is an issue far too important for politics.


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